Medical technology could help identify underwater oil leaks

A team of British engineers is hoping that technology used for fertility tests and other medical diagnoses could help detect underwater oil leaks.

Researchers at Cambridge Consultants are developing sensors that identify light emitted by natural fluorescence in crude oil after it absorbs ultraviolet rays, similar to those that measure fluorescence from dyes used to identify sperm or other biological cells or molecules.

The technology could be used to provide information not typically available from current systems about oil leaks from underwater pipes or the seabed, alerting authorities to a leak before it reaches the water’s surface and potentially identifying its source.

‘It’s unlikely that any one sensing technique on its own will be sufficiently robust for the requirements,’ said Dr Frances Metcalfe, associate director of oil and gas at Cambridge Consultants.

‘But we can imagine being able to create a network of sensors that could be applied to an area where you want to know sooner rather than later if there’s an oil spill or leakage problem.’

Existing methods of detecting oil leaks tend to rely on radar and visual scanners that can pick up oil deposits on the surface of the water. Fluorescent dyes can also be injected into a pipe and detected once they leak out with the oil.

Fluorescent dyes can already be used to help pinpoint oil leaks from underwater pipes

However, Cambridge Consultants wants to develop a device that is sensitive enough to detect the fluorescence that occurs naturally in crude oil and can pinpoint the origin of a pipeline leak or fissures in the seabed.

‘There are number of techniques we’ve used for other products we’ve developed that optimise the generation and collection of the fluorescent signal, and also separate it out from other signals you’re not interested in,’ said Metcalfe.

‘In a [medical] diagnostic application, you’re trying to measure very small amounts of fluorescent light and the limitation is that you haven’t got very much sample of blood or whatever it is.’

Having developed the technology in the lab, the company is now looking for partners to help develop practical prototypes that take into account environmental factors and limitations such as cost, power supply and underwater communication.